I’m on a listserv along with Working Families Party communications director Joe Dinkin. He posted his initial response to the #BlackLivesMatter protest at the presidential candidates townhall meeting at Netroots Nation last Saturday that I found to be one of the most impressive analyses of the event that I’ve read. He turned it into a piece for The Nation titled “Bernie Sanders Blew a Huge Opportunity at Netroots Nation“, apiece that I highly commend your attention to. Here are a couple of excerpts to whet your appetite:
With the protest, Sanders was presented an opportunity on a silver platter: He could overcome his perceived negatives and grow his base. All he would have had to do was act with a little humility.
But instead, he talked over the protesters, got defensive about his racial-justice bona fides, and stuck to his script. Essentially, he appeared to be arguing that economics and class trump all. For an audience mourning the death of Sandra Bland, a woman who was arrested at a traffic stop on the way to her new job before mysteriously dying in police custody, the jobs program Sanders suggested just didn’t seem like a sufficient answer.
But there was also a tactical error—a mistake in the basic craft of politics: the failure to read the room. It was hard to watch him refuse to respond to people shouting and calling out for their lives. (When Vice President Joe Biden was interrupted by pro-immigration protesters at the prior Netroots Nation, he paused, applauded them, and answered their concerns.) It was a remarkable display of cognitive dissonance when Sanders said the country needed a democratic revolution, as he looked out at one staring him in the face and ignored it.
Here’s one stab at a better response he could have given: “We need a democratic revolution, and you are part of it. I admire your courage in speaking up. I learned of the troubling death of a black woman in police custody, and, yes, I will say her name: Sandra Bland. I will say her name because black lives matter. I admit I don’t have all the answers. But your fight is my fight. For dignity and equality for all. I need you to fight with me and help me learn. Together we can change both politics and culture and ensure that black lives matter.”
I suspect a lot of people would have been blown away. He could have remade his own image in an instant.
For me, the most powerful statement in the piece came from a friend of his. It’s a profound request for us to see this for what it is: a new civil rights movement:
A friend said it brilliantly on social media: “If you ever wondered what you would do in the civil rights movement, stop wondering. It is the civil rights movement. What are you doing?”
It’s time for us all to ask what we are doing to be part of this movement. Are we engaging, learning, growing, and contributing? Or are we retrenching in support of our candidate, whitesplaining to BLM members why what they did was “disrespectful” and “divisive”, or taking some other unhelpful role? It’s our choice to make. As Dinkin’s friend said, it IS the civil rights movement. What ARE you doing?